Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

LisaAnnOKane

Tampa, FL

Female, 32

During my zookeeping and environmental education career, I have interacted and worked with a variety of animals, including brown bears, wolverines, red foxes, moose, camels, mountain goats, dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, raptors and ravens. I am also a young adult author, and my debut novel ESSENCE was released in June 2014 by Strange Chemistry Books. Ask me anything!

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Last Answer on September 18, 2015

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Can lions or tigers be domesticated? I've seen footage of people keeping them as pets - sweet as they seem, couldn't those animals snap at any minute?

Asked by C-Moz72 about 10 years ago

Hi C-Moz, you've hit the nail on the head. I highly discourage people from keeping any exotic animals as pets, but I PASSIONATELY discourage people from keeping big cats as pets. Illegal pet trade and animal welfare issues aside, domestication is a process that takes hundreds--if not thousands--of years of selective breeding. In order for an animal to be truly "domesticated," its natural instinct to fear humans must be completely bred out. (See my answer for the "dogs vs. wolves" question on this page for more info about how domestication works.) That's not to say a wild lion or tiger CAN'T be trained to safely--and sometimes affectionately--interact with a human. This happens frequently in zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers all across the country. The difference is that these animals are so powerful, instinctual and unpredictable that I believe they should only be trained by knowledgeable animal care professionals. Professionals are also WAY better equipped to deal with the enrichment and animal care issues that come up with these animals. Invariably, many of these so-called "pets" end up dumped in shelters or euthanized, and many don't get nearly the exercise or care they need. (See my answer to the "animals not commonly kept as pets" question on this page for more information about this.) Again, I'm not claiming the care of a lion or tiger by a private individual is IMPOSSIBLE; I'm sure many people keep big cats without incident. I just know that I personally wouldn't even feel comfortable keeping a big cat as a pet, and I AM an animal care professional. Better safe than sorry, you know?

Are a lot of people in your line of work vegetarian/vegan, given that they work so closely with animals day in and day out?

Asked by m0ng00se about 10 years ago

Awesome question! There are definitely some, but I'm actually surprised there aren't more. Instead, it seems like many of the zookeepers I've worked with have grown this bizarre tolerance to all the gross raw meat and nastiness they have to handle on a daily basis. Many can even take a fecal sample and then roll right into eating a hamburger. (After hand-washing, of course!) The one exception to this is marine mammal trainers. They handle so much raw fish that most of the ones I know gag at even the thought of sushi!

What zoos do you consider the best in terms of providing a natural habitat for its animals?

Asked by Alex J. Cavanaugh about 10 years ago

Hi Alex, and thanks for stopping by! There are so many amazing animal care facilities out there that it is really hard to pick. There any many standards of care that must be met in order for a facility to display exotic species. Some of the highest of these standards are set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Facilities that are accredited by this organization are considered the very best of the best. (Look for their logo next time you visit a facility!) My personal favorite zoos and aquariums are Disney's Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld's Discovery Cove, the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium--although there are many, many others out there that are just as amazing. In my opinion, these facilities have taken extra special pains to provide incredible enrichment and natural habitats for their animals, and they have also done an amazing job with their educational and conservation signage.

I know pandas are ordinarily solitary creatures, but is there a specific term for a "group" of pandas?

Asked by Stephanie about 10 years ago

Hi Stephanie! As far as I know, there is no "official" term for a group of pandas, since they are seen together so infrequently. Unofficially, I believe a group is called a "sleuth" or a "sloth," since that's the technical term for a group of bears. (Random, right? Here's a great link from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center that lists other bizarre animal groups: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/about/faqs/animals/names.htm Some of my favorites: A group of porcupines is a "prickle," a group of finches is a "charm," and a group of sharks is a "shiver." Who knew?)

This is an amazing Q&A - you're really good at explaining stuff :) Did you hear about the Seaworld whale trainer dying in 2010? Do you think they should stop the whale shows when there's basically no way to prevent a killer whale from going crazy?

Asked by andrea s. about 10 years ago

Thanks for reading, Andrea! I did hear about this trainer’s death, and I think this situation is so heartbreaking and complicated. I will give you my opinion on this tragedy, but please understand that this is just my personal opinion--not the official stance of any organization or group of organizations. What happened to Dawn Brancheau was absolutely tragic. Sea World has made the decision to suspend the in-water portion of their orca shows, and I respect that decision very much. They have made the right move if this new policy saves even one other trainer from suffering a similar fate. I do want to stress, however, that I think it is rash for the public to pass judgment on the entire Sea World orca population—or Sea World in general—based on the actions of this one particular male orca. (And don’t be fooled by their identical appearances! Orcas demonstrate behavioral preferences and choices that vary as widely and drastically as human personalities.) Even before this tragedy occurred, I believe Sea World had some of the most impressive safety protocols of any organization in the world. Their enrichment and training program is top of the line, and many of the country’s best trainers, veterinarians and specialists work for them. (A friend of mine actually started at Sea World in 2006. Her dream was to become an orca trainer, but she was assigned to the dolphin department first. She was told it would be YEARS before she was given so much as an orca fish bucket, so you know Sea World takes its orca department seriously.) My personal opinion is that what happened to Dawn Brancheau was a tragic aligning of the stars. Everything from her choice in hairstyles to the time of year to this particular whale’s mood and temperament stacked up and collided to create one moment where one whale made one decision that will forever alter the way marine mammal facilities operate. It is impossible to know if this situation would ever repeat itself. Sea World has operated for many, many years with many, many whales that have never made the decision this whale did. But when in doubt, you may as well err on the side of caution. That’s what I believe Sea World has done, so I very much respect their judgment.

Is your work with animals the focus of your writing career?

Asked by tomjones about 10 years ago

Thanks for the question, Tom! My first novel (the one that landed me a literary agent but didn't get picked up by any publishers) was about a girl who worked on a beluga whale research team in Alaska. It was very much inspired by my experience working with marine mammals. I have a few other zoo-related novels up my sleeves, but I've decided not to limit myself to only writing about working with animals. Instead, I focus on nature as a whole, and I've decided my literary mission statement is "to inspire readers to care about nature by crafting stories that highlight the interconnectedness of humans and the world around us." Sounds like a mouthful, I know, but I hope it will keep me focused. I also hope it will stop me from writing about every random thing that strikes my fancy. (Right now, I'm revising a near-future thriller called ESSENCE. It's about a seventeen year-old who lives under the control of San Francisco’s cult-like Centrist Movement. She stumbles upon a group of free-spirited Outsiders living in the abandoned remains of Yosemite National Park, and she must struggle to stay true to herself while realigning her values and pushing herself to become one of them.) Crossing my fingers the publishers like it!

Are camels particularly friendly animals, or do they have a temper? What would they do if they felt scared or threatened?

Asked by CNHolmberg about 10 years ago

Hi Charlie! You are in luck, because the "animal love of my life" happens to be a huge Bactrian camel named Knobby. (He lives at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, and he LOVES visitors!) I didn't know too much about camels until I started working with Knobby, but I sure became an expert quickly. I learned that camels (especially male camels) can be incredibly ornery. They can also be very dangerous, and some people die from camel attacks every year. When camels feel scared or threatened, they generally spit, stamp their feet and swing their heads. They attack by trampling and even crushing, and males grow very long incisors they use for fighting. Now, I don't want to suggest camels are blood-thirsty killers or anything. They are just HUGE, and they are incredibly powerful. Males can stand more than seven feet tall at the hump, and they can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. I would probably stereotype a camel's disposition as similar to a donkey or llama--although individual camels obviously vary as widely as humans. Camels are also very smart, and they can be trained to be great companions if you are focused and dedicated. Speaking from my experience, I began working with Knobby when he was only six months old. As he grew, he began spitting and charging and generally being terrifying. It got to the point where I didn't even feel comfortable going in his enclosure with him. (One time, he even cornered and trapped me behind a gate, and it literally crossed my mind that he may kill me.) Instead of giving up on him or reverting to the old methods of negative training, I began doing positive reinforcement training with him through his bars. After many, many, many months of hard work, I was able to not only enter his enclosure with him, but to lead him through a variety of complicated commands, including sitting on command, rolling on his side, presenting his feet for inspection, wearing a halter and letting me to sit on his back. As time passed, he grew to be my very favorite animal, and I grew to be his favorite human. He ran over to me whenever he saw me, and he cried his head off whenever I left. We had an amazing relationship (and I still miss him every single day), but I never grew complacent with him, because I knew I always had to respect his strength. Even when we were in the middle of our training sessions, I always had an escape plan in the back of my mind. And whenever he got too excited, I always cut our training sessions short. Better safe than sorry. ;)